10/20/2015 0 Comments
Wright and the Magic Circle
My earlier posts on temporality in Jay Wright’s poetry were, in a sense, practice for this particular post, which is all about space. After re-reading those earlier posts, I can say confidently that I still believe all of my (granted, hesitant) claims. I am, however, interested now in something different, something I’m calling “The Magic Circle,” which appears to me in Wright’s poetic language. This “Magic Circle” demarcates a space of conjuration that has two principle effects. First, the circle sidesteps the paradigm of diassociationism that shapes so much of the visual encounter in Modernist and Post-Modernist literature (more on this in a moment). Second, the circle facilitates truly stunning synesthetic events through which the usually divided sensorial apparatuses (eyes/sight, ears/hearing, skin/touch, etc.) merge in order to produce a “reading” of what Wright calls the “coherent grammar” of the world (and more on this, too, further down). The circle created through Wright’s poetry makes me think of sorcery and witchcraft such as that running rampant in Medieval Europe and conspicuously present in the works of, for example, Christopher Marlowe (particularly Faustus). I have for many years studied the episteme of Medieval Europe that Michel Foucault refers to in The Order of Things as the similitude oriented system of knowledge. In Wright’s poetry I sense an attempt to recuperate—if that’s even the right verb—this episteme’s worldview, perhaps because he values the vibrant interconnectedness of world systems at work then/there.
In The Theatre of Truth, William Egginton assesses what he sees as the paradigmatic mode of spectatorship shaping the Modern world. He calls this paradigm “disassociationism,” which allows (i.e., makes it possible for) individuals to create a clear, binary distinction between spectator and performer. This mode of viewing arises in tandem with seventeenth-century aesthetic creations—including, primarily, theatre—and quickly ascends to the realm of habit where it remains out of reach of critique or self-reflection. As Egginton sees it, once an individual identifies herself as a spectator she will subtract herself from the scene of the performance and begin to order to aesthetic event in terms of “on stage” and “off stage.” One’s off stage presence does not necessarily entail a passive mode of consumption, though it does frequently acquiesce to the “truth” of the world being constructed on stage. “The point to grasp,” Egginton continues, “is that once entire populations became fluent in assuming and projecting this division in order to function correctly as theatre spectators, that fluency became a generalized spatial structure for conceptualizing the world as a whole” (14). He transitions from these comments into a conversation about Descartes’ creation of “a thinking substance that looks out onto the world of extended substances” (14), and then he dedicates the rest of his pages to a discussion of how baroque aesthetic offerings refute this binary distinction (by privileging, for example and a la Deleuze, a folding of interiority and exteriority instead of the smooth division of “on stage” and “off stage” or interior (subjectivity) / exterior (objectivity)).
I could quibble with Egginton on a number of points, but, in general, I think he’s making an important claim; namely, that Modernity orders itself around a highly theatrical mode of viewing that distinguishes between spectators and performers (never to be merged) and requires a notion of subjectivity as a properly internal domain. In this discussion, I’d like to transition quickly (if not artlessly) to the tendency for Modern and even Post-Modern poetry to capitulate all too quickly to this disassociationism. Consider, briefly (if that’s possible) the opening stanza of Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question ...
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
With the opening line, Eliot offers an invitation for me, the would-be spectator, to leave my position as passive reader in order to enter the scene of evening “spread out against the sky” and, through the embodied act of visitation, participate in the poem-world as a performer. While Eliot would like to activate me as the reader, his invitation is in fact conditioned by as assumed definition of my pre-poem state as interiorized subject preparing to consume the poetic fare as a spectator would imbibe a stage performance from the darkened auditorium. Eliot activates me but simultaneously relies upon the disassociationism that outfits me for such an invitation, thereby lending it credence and, in a sense, preserving its authority.
I could identify a similar capitulation in Wright:
Here begins the revelation of a kiosk,
beside the road: the white eggs
nestled there in straw
turn blue in amber light.
Make of that what you will,
Say, what you desire […] (Absence 1)
Is Wright not setting up the traditional scene where I, reader, am welcomed into a scene outside of myself, perhaps the scene prepared by Wright’s poetic body as it prepares its “colonization” of the road that stretches out beyond the roadside kiosk? Yes and no. Yes, insofar as I, the reader, have stumbled into this scene and might very well assume that “I” am the individual to whom Wright beckons with the phrase, “Make of that what you will.” At the same time, no, because, it turns out, “I” am not necessarily welcomed here. If there is an “I” in this poem, it belongs more properly to Wright himself, and it belongs to him only insofar as he is going to demonstrate to himself that the “I” is neither a certain nor stable marker. As such, he, the poet, is going to demonstrate to himself the difficulty of attempting to demonstrate something when the act of demonstration relies on a seemingly stable “I” to pull it off. To hint at this identity crisis, Wright transitions to Spanish by the end of page 1: “Somos ese quimérico museo de formas / inconstantes.”
Wright undoes himself in successive moves through Reading Absence. “I sit in error, or so would I stand.” Neither sitting nor standing, but somehow both (and neither); neither indicative nor conditional tense, but somehow both (or neither). Wright slips in and out of himself only to discover that he himself is nothing that great, nothing so great as to merit more attention than a bowl of green chile, the bluest flower of Zapopan, a goshawk’s exhilarated cry (7). He chooses to slip in this way so as to teach himself how “to release the sunlight / and to allow a magnetic dissonance / in a bird voice that enters the ear” (9). In other words, he’s working hard to reveal the extent to which he is—at most and at least—a constitutive member of world of matter and energy.
As he teaches himself, he occasionally slips back into the disassociationism that, by habit, shapes our assessment of ourselves in the world. He identifies this moments in the text with parenthesis. Recall Adorno’s caution against the reliance on the parenthesis, which, he says, serves only to imprison certain material within the flow of narrative. As it to signify the subjective-philosophical prison created by disassociationism, Wright uses parenthesis to stabilize fleeting theatrical scenes that interrupt his poem-lesson from time to time. The first usage appears on page 12: “The lights reveal the epitome of a wash, with yucca elata sitting sternly in place. A small man, wearing a white guayabera and white cotton trousers, swerves in an irresolute light.” Notice how the poetic stanza gives way to prose at this point. The reliance on the typical on stage/off stage visual configuration somehow commandeers the poem.
The poem manages to break free of the scene, but a second interruption occurs at page 41, again marked by parenthesis and prose: “Two small boats, each with a solitary figure standing erect within it, progress through a rapidly flowing basin. The figures gradually reveal themselves to be women […]” These women characters eventually speak (lines in the drama): “Do you known that she is pursuing you?” says one woman. “But I am pursuing her” replies the other. An entire scene plays out over two pages and eventually comes to a rest with these lines: “The women stand in the boats, and raise their arms in supplication. Their mouths open and shut; no words come.)” As soon as it ends, Wright returns to Spanish and signals the difficulty of returning to the poem with a backslash: “/mi corazón e un ofrenda y mis lágrimas / son piedras rituals.”
From this point, the poem really picks up steam. Wright’s slip manages to teach himself a lot (or so it seems) and my position as reader becomes one marked by uncertainty: should I be watching this? Am I watching anything, or is the poem inviting me to lose myself along with Wright, to suffer a particular loss of self that will reveal my entanglement in the Everything? There comes a moment when I (Will, actually I, as much as I can be I) find myself hoping for another interruption of prose, a moment to catch my breath. One finally comes, but something is different this time. The parenthesis-prison is still there, but this time an altogether different play erupts. Now, three matadores appear, marked as M1, M2, and M3 I the script, thus hinting at the possibility that Wright may have conjured a single matador split in 3.
Every House Has a Door is currently investigating what this is all about. If I can assist in the problem solving (or maybe it’s a matter of posing the problem correctly?), then I will do so by offering this thought: the 3 matadores enact a drawing of a magic circle within the poem so as to protect it from the interruption of disassociationism. That is to say, as Doctor Faustus and other magicians like him would draw a circle on the ground from which to call upon the spirits of the world to appear and make manifest their knowledge, so too do the matadores draw their arena around them thereby protecting them from the harm of spectator/performer binaries and allowing for the possibility that some spirits will come in for a closer look.
Spiraling motions abound in the matador scene:
M2 spins in a farol
The three figures write the circle “geographically” by naming points on the globe that encircle them: Sevilla, Lima, Madrid, Caracas, Puebla, Salamanca, Barcelona…
The series of passes, which amount to a series of semi-circular movements
Spells punctuate the matadores’ movements, italicized to indicate some kind of communication between Wright and the three figures:
I do not hear the clock
at the far end of the room,
nor the bell that brought me
to this seat
But now, somehow, the spells in tandem with the matadores’ movements work to re-position Wright within the world of matter or energy:
I am suddenly
a gossamer thread,
lifted from within,
sheared from this moment,
a process given substance
by a trinity
who will not speak to me.
Most fascinating to me: Wright provides no parenthesis with which to close this matador ritual. Once the matadores inscribe the magic circle within the poem, the poem itself is sucked into the scene and can forget any attempt to go back to its former state of autonomous poem because, perhaps, the poem realizes that no state ever existed.
[Pause…the next installation will look to Music’s Mask and Measure to pursue the synesthesia made possible through conjuration within the magic circle]
Will Daddario is a historiographer, philosopher, and teacher. He currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina.